Posts Tagged ‘pontifex maximus’

Pontifex Maximus

March 29, 2010

As the product of a protestant/lapsed protestant family background, the ex-pupil of a Church of England school, and the technical recipient of a Methodist baptism, I felt a little like I was crashing somebody else’s party on Thursday evening as I rocked up at the Vatican ready to see Benedict XVI in the flesh.  For any reader with a similar sort of background to me, I’ll begin by explaining that he’s the guy that drives the Pope Mobile and, as anybody who’s read any of the countless papal inscriptions scattered throughout Rome will know, goes by the proto-hip hop tag of “P Max”.

The name, (pontifex maximus in its entirety, or chief priest) is in fact far more old-school than Christianity and dates back (at least as far as legend is concerned) to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius.  Whilst Romulus had founded the city and shaped its culture immeasurably, tradition ascribes the introduction of most aspects of the civic religious life to the pious Numa.  To occupy Romulus’ warriors, Numa gave them religion.  It was our chum P Max who made sure that the royal reforms were being duly carried out.

Away from the clean cut world of legend and myth, the origins of the position are a little hazier.  Etymologist argue over the meaning (possibly “greatest bridge builder” or maybe, based on Etruscan, “greatest road builder”) and the discussions about why the chief priest should be given a title pertaining more to mechanics than theology seem little more than guess work.  One popular suggestion for example, is that originally the priest’s duties genuinely did include building bridges.

The pontifex maximus was the head of the college of priests and his duties included everything from maintaining the calendar to overseeing funerals.  For more information on what he got up to, I’m sure Wikipedia will list the duties just as well as I could.  I want to zoom ahead to the late fourth century and the reign of the Emperor Gratian.  This Christian Emperor suppressed pagan rites as much as he could at the time (introducing limitations on property bequeathed to the Vestal virgins for example, and removing the Augustan Altar of Victory from the Senate House).*  He was the first Emperor who actively rejected the quintessentially pagan title.

This Christian distaste didn’t last.  Whilst Medieval Christians were reluctant to read the foul filth peddled by ancient writers, paradoxically they were more than happy to name themselves after the paganism’s religious leaders.   The title has never been used in the Pope’s official titles but from the high middle ages until today, it’s remained in use as a sort of papal nickname.

*Sensibly Gratian did recognise that there were aspects of paganism that you just don’t want to change, and he did nothing to prevent his own deification.